Computer Vision Syndrome: Fact or Fiction?

THURSDAY March 3, 2011 -- Staring into the enticing glow of your computer hour after hour may well have its benefits, but a downside to all that screen time can include dry, tired eyes, blurred vision, fatigue and headaches.

This cluster of symptoms is called "computer vision syndrome" (CVS), but eye experts don't agree on whether it's serious or even if it's a new phenomenon.

"Computer vision syndrome is a new diagnosis, and a relatively trendy one at that," said Dr. Ivan R. Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. "And the thought that focusing up close at technology will provoke a new set of symptoms different from that experienced during other forms of close-up work and attention has yet to be documented in any kind of scientific literature or study. So I'm relatively skeptical of it."

That cautious sentiment is shared by Dr. Lee Duffner, a Florida ophthalmologist.

"CVS has become a very familiar term," he said. "But it's really used more frequently by optometrists than ophthalmologists. And that is because it's really a kind of a shorthand that does not appear to connote any specific anatomic defect that occurs in the eye as a result of sitting too long in front of a computer."

The American Optometric Association (representing primary eye care providers who are certified to diagnose and treat eye disease, but are not medical doctors) stands behind the notion of CVS as a "complex of eye and vision problems related to near work which are experienced during or related to computer use." What's more, the AOA argues that the syndrome is a significant public health issue.

An AOA survey found that in the United States upwards of 10 million eye examinations each year are conducted to address computer-related visual problems. And it says between 50 and 90 percent of people who routinely work in front of a video display terminal are subject to visual symptoms characteristic of CVS.

In contrast, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (which represents medical doctors specialized in vision care) views CVS as a reversible short-term condition that dissipates when users take breaks away from their computer screens.

Duffner concurs.

"It's really just symptomatic at the time that you are there at your computer," he said. "There's no data to show that there is any permanent damage to the surface of the eye or any pathology of the eye that accompanies working at the computer."

Duffner and Schwab said that when far-sighted individuals struggle to focus up close the result may be normal eye strain. The progressive loss of the ability to easily shift between distance and near vision, which starts at about age 40, may also add to eye strain.

Both doctors pass on the need for specialized lenses designed for computer use. Instead, they recommend having the proper standard corrective glasses or contacts.

"The computer doesn't actually cause any actual physical damage to the eye," said Duffner. "Despite the rumors, this doesn't happen. There's no radiation output, for example."

Schwab adds that the symptoms are not caused by the machine or even the act of performing close-up work per se.

"Because the imagery on a computer or any hand-held digital device is so alluring, it's pretty well accepted that we tend to stare and not blink as much," Schwab explained. "Then what happens is you get dry spots, which expose the skin surface of the eye, and that tends to cause irritation, a gritty sensation. And that is the source of many of the dry eye complaints associated with computer vision problems."

Duffner's advice to patients who complain of dry eye is: 'Think, Blink."

"Basically, I tell my patients with computer issues the same thing I've been telling proofreaders to do for years," said Duffner. "Which is to periodically get up from their chair, walk around their desk, and look off way into the distance. And then sit down and go back to work. That brief little walk for just a minute or two, that break, will increase your tenacity and endurance at the computer."

Schwab takes a pragmatic position. "The eyes are not perfect optical instruments, and all of this computer trouble is really explainable as a function of intense prolonged concentration," he said. "As a species we've lived with this sort of thing for a long time. This is just a newer version of an old problem."

More information

For more on CVS, visit the American Optometric Association.

Posted: March 2011


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